Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 24, 1899. Shortly after his birth, his family relocated to Palermo, a suburb on the northern outskirts of the city named after the capital of Sicily. Although now Palermo is a well-developed area with a high cost of living, at the turn of the century it was a lower class suburb known for its vaguely seedy underclass, discordant politics, and knife-wielding compadrito, or hoodlums. A suburb containing its share of whorehouses and cabarets, it could be an often violent place where the residents danced the tango and told stories aflame with gauchos and knife fights. Although the flavor of this neighborhood was to permanently enter Borges's later writing, at the turn of the century the middle-class Borges family felt distinctly out of place.
As a middle class child living in Palermo, he was essentially a bookish and terribly nearsighted child who tended to hide indoors. And yet in the manner common to all boys everywhere, in his imagination he fancied himself to be an active part of the local scenery. He established a friendship with a local poet, his neighbor Evaristo Carriego, a reckless man who represented much of the "sentimental machismo" of Argentine tradition and would become something of a minor idol to the young dreamer. It wasn't until much later, returning to Buenos Aires after spending seven years in Europe, that Borges admitted to himself that "for years I believed I had grown up in a suburb . . . of risky streets and visible sunsets. The truth is I grew up in a garden, behind lanceolate railings, and in a library of unlimited English books." He later wrote a small book on the poet Carriego in which he reconciles the fact that his younger self was no denizen of the streets, but rather a quiet intellectual. Nevertheless, images of the compadrito, stray gauchos, and knife fights would make their occasional appearances throughout the rest of his literary career.
Although it was the 1940's that first gave Borges the glimmer of international fame, when his works were translated into French, it wouldn't be until 1961 that he would gain genuine world-wide recognition. That year he and Samuel Beckett were jointly awarded the second-ever International Publishers Prize, the Formentor Prize, and he found that the global spotlight was suddenly turned upon him. His work was translated into English, and all at once he became in demand. Ficciones was translated into several languages and made its way into many countries, becoming the first Latin American work to achieve such attention. He was invited to the University of Texas, and in 196 he experienced the United States for the first time, a country that he had always considered in semi-mythic proportions. He spent six months travelling, lecturing at universities from San Francisco to New York. He would visit the United States numerous times over the rest of his life, giving lectures, readings, and informal discussions.
In 1963 he travelled again to Europe, revisiting many locations from his childhood memories and meeting again with old friends and associates, and in 1967 he was invited by Harvard to spend a year in the U.S. as a visiting professor. He wrote many more volumes of poetry, and a few collections of short stories and essays. In 1967, he and his friend Bioy Casares published another "Bustos Domecq" book, The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq. In 1970 a collection of stories came out, El Informe de Brodie, "Dr. Brodie's Report." In 1973 he decided to spend the next few years travelling and lecturing, producing another collection of stories, El libro de arena, or "The Book of Sand" in 1975.
In addition to short stories, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies. His longest work of fiction is a 14-page story, "The Congress", first published in 1971. His late-onset blindness strongly influenced his later writing. Borges wrote: "When I think of what I've lost, I ask, 'Who know themselves better than the blind?' – for every thought becomes a tool.". His most important intellectual interests are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, integrating these through literature, sometimes playfully, sometimes with great seriousness.
Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned, he increasingly focused on writing poetry, since he could memorize an entire work in progress. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, and from more personal musings. For example, his interest in idealism pervades his work, reflected in the fictional world of Tlön in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius" and in his poems "Things" and "The Golem" and his story "The Circular Ruins".
He died in Geneva 14 June 1986 and was buried in the Cimetière des Rois.
The tombstone is fascinating as it reveals a lot of Borges' world. On his tombstone are inscriptions in Old English and Old Norse and a single enigmatic line in Spanish. What is going on here?The face of the stone depicts a scene of warriors in armor that echoes the Lindisfarne gravestone, which probably depicts memories of a raid by Vikings in 793. “Jorge Luis Borges” curves over the top of the stone. Underneath the words “…and ne forhtedon na”, then the dates, “1899 1986″ with a small Celtic cross shaped like that at Gosforth.
“And ne forhtedon na” is Old English for “Be not afraid” and is a quote from the poem “The Battle of Maldon” which Borges translated and often discussed.The reverse of the stone depicts a Viking ship, possibly derived from a Gotland runestone. In Norse thought, ships were associated with death, that last great voyage into the unknown. Above the ship is a line from the Old Norse Volsunga Saga: “Hann tekr sverthtt Gram ok leggri methal their abert”. Sigurd, who is disguised as Brynhild’s husband, lies down beside her: “He took the sword Gram and laid the naked metal between them.”Underneath the ship are the words: “De Ulrica a Javier Otárola”. Ulrikka and Javier are characters in Borges’ story “Ulrikka” which is pefaced by the earlier lines from Volsunga Saga. The story is about the romance between a young Norwegian woman and an older man in York.
"Borges and I" by Jorge Luis BorgesThe other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
Jorge Luis Borges
and remember Time is another river.
To know we stray like a river
and our faces vanish like water.
To feel that waking is another dream
that dreams of not dreaming and that the death
we fear in our bones is the death
that every night we call a dream.
To see in every day and year a symbol
of all the days of man and his years,
and convert the outrage of the years
into a music, a sound, and a symbol.
To see in death a dream, in the sunset
a golden sadness--such is poetry,
humble and immortal, poetry,
returning, like dawn and the sunset.
Sometimes at evening there's a face
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
Art must be that sort of mirror,
disclosing to each of us his face.
They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
humble and green. Art is that Ithaca,
a green eternity, not wonders.
Art is endless like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing.
--translated by Anthony Kerrigan